Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hike 97: Mt Wilson via Upper Winter Creek

Hiked Weds, Nov 3. I was thinking I might try to do the Mt. Baldy Trail, but I want to give myself a full 10 hours for that one. Since I wasn't ready to leave home until almost 9am yesterday, that would have left me about two hours short of my preferred time. Unfortunately, DST ends on Sunday, so that means a ten hour hike will need to start by 7am next week. That's going to be a little tough to make. But no traffic, I guess. :D

Instead, I settled for a longish but mostly shaded hike to Mt. Wilson. I think the Mt Wilson Trail is the toughest way up, especially when it's hot. So much of that trail is exposed to directly sunlight. Instead, I went up Big Santa Anita Canyon, which is the Chantry Flats trailhead. I also took the Upper Winter Creek trail, which I think has the smallest net altitude gain of any front country route up Wilson.

Chantry Flats is accessed by heading north on Santa Anita Avenue. You need an adventure pass to park there, and you need to arrive or leave between 6am and 8pm. Sierra Madre locks the gates between those times.

From the highest of the three tiers of parking at Chantry, head north, towards a paved but gated road. A sign there will indicate 7 miles to Mt. Wilson. The road will switchback several times before you reach another trailhead sign on your left. It will indicate 6.5 miles to Mt. Wilson.

The Upper Winter Creek trail climbs pretty briskly, and after another 1/2 mile or so you get a good overlook of the parking area, and on down Big Santa Anita Canyon. But once the trail twists around another bend, the route up was surprisingly shaded. With my dark glasses on, it was actually a little TOO dark. Lots of trees overhead, both coniferous and deciduous.

The path crosses several small seeps (they're creeks earlier in the season). No signage until you reach the fork of the Mt. Zion trail. That sign will indicate 4.5 miles more to Mt. Wilson, or 3.0 miles back to Chantry Flats. At this point, you might wonder why the total distance adds up to 7.5 miles, when the sign at the trailhead said it was only 7 miles to the bottom gate, or 6.5 miles to the trailhead that leaves the paved road. I can't help you, there.

If you want a shorter hike, take the right path to Mt. Zion. You can either do that as an in and back trip, or continue past Mt. Zion and take the Lower Winter Creek trail as a loop. I've done that at least a few times this year.

For the longer hike, turn left and begin your climb up towards Mt. Wilson and the Mt. Wilson trail.

As you approach a ridge line, the next sign is a bit mysterious. The actual sign used to direct you to make a left. Someone has since scribbled out those arrows and directs you to the right. It also indicates 3/4 of a mile to the Mt. Wilson Trail, 3 miles to Mt. Wilson, or 4 1/4 miles back to Chantry Flats. Again, the arithmetic may fail you. But more importantly is the direction to take at this sign.

The more-worn path (pictured here) is to the right, and it's the one I took the last few times I came to this area (despite the previous arrow). It's more shaded and not as steep as the alternative. But I'm quite confident that going this way is far longer than 3/4 of a mile to the Mt. Wilson Trail.

If, instead, at this sign you were to go left (where the arrow *used* to point), this is the path you'd follow. You'd have to duck a little to get under a bush that is about 50 yards past this point, overgrowing part of the trail. Once you duck under the bush, you're on the ridgeline.

I suspect you're supposed to just charge right along the ridgeline, along what is the remains of a firebreak. If you do, I can believe it's (a very difficult) 3/4 of a mile. If you take a less direct route, I think this path is also more than 3/4 of a mile to the Mt. Wilson Trail, but it's substantially shorter than if you went right at the previous sign.

Regardless of your path, you'll eventually reach a memorial bench. In the accompanying picture, there's the bench, and there's my backpack. If you turned left at the previous sign, you'd pop out from under the tree that's just past the bench. If you took the most direct firebreak route, you'd have come up from pretty much dead ahead, just right of the bench. If you got here via the Mt. Wilson trail (via Little Santa Anita Canyon), which begins a bit east of Baldwin Avenue, off of Mira Loma), you'd have run face-on into this bench. The trail mileage sign (below) would be facing right at you.

The sign at this bench says it's now 1/2 mile to the Toll Road, 2 1/4 mile to Mt. Wilson, 5 miles to Chantry Flats, or 5 1/2 miles to Sierra Madre via the Mt. Wilson Trail.

In other words, whether you got here via Upper Winter Creek or the Mt. Wilson trail, the route's the same from here. So keep going the next 1/2 mile, and you're at the Toll Road. That means, from that point forward, whether you came up via Upper Winter Creek, the Mt. Wilson trail, or Eaton Canyon, all three routes are the same from there on up.

The sign here says 1 3/4 to Mt. Wilson, 7 1/4 to Altadena (Eaton Canyon), 6 miles back to Sierra Madre via the Mt. Wilson Trail, or 5 1/2 back to Chantry Flats.

I may be over focusing on the signage here. But I'm just trying to make the point that, mileage-wise, Upper Winter Creek is supposed to be the shortest way, and it should have the smallest net altitude gain. The Toll Road is allegedly over a mile longer than the Mt. Wilson Trail and 1 3/4 miles longer than the Upper Winter Creek route. But because of the modest incline, I actually think it's the easiest way. Besides, you can knock off about one of those miles by beginning at Pine Crest Road rather than the Eaton Canyon Nature Center.

From here, it's an easy 1/2 mile or so as you round Mt. Harvard and reach a trail that splits off the road, right where the road to Mt. Harvard joins up with the Toll Road. It's about 1 mile along this trail, which deposits you on a parking lot in front of the big pavilion that now houses the Cosmic Cafe (open on weekends and holidays). Happily, the toilets behind the Cosmic Cafe are open everyday.

The bugs up top were unusually thick yesterday. I was swatting a number with every swish of my hand around my ear. Nonetheless, I pushed on. Having seen a sign near the pavilion for the Rim Trail and its short path to an overlook, I figured I'd check it out. I would actually have made an approach to Mt. Wilson via the Rim Trail already, but a sign down in Sturtevant Canyon a few months ago indicated the trail from there to Newcomb Pass and the Rim Trail was closed as part of the Station Fire recovery order.

Seeing no "trail closed" sign at the top end, I decided to walk the indicated .8 miles to the vista point. This short path was the buggiest, yet. It also gave me a look at the back side of the 100-inch dome and solar tower.

And it ran me near several of the smaller domes that house parts of CHARA (Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy, operated by Georgia State University) a collection of six telescopes that work like one big telescope to examine individual stars more closely).

From the vista point, I also had a view into some of the fire-damaged areas (some of which can also be seen from the Echo Rock overlook, accessed via the Sturdevant Trail). The difference is that the Rim Trail vista point is further north, which gives better visual access to the San Gabriel Wilderness area and the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. In fact, I was actually able to see Cogswell Reservoir Dam, and that there's a fair amount of water behind the dam.

Although the burn picture makes things look pretty barren, in real-life I could seem some greening in several areas. They're not green like back East, but they're green for the end of summer in the San Gabriel Mountains. At least something is growing back.

All told, I walked about 16 miles yesterday: Between 14 and 14.5 miles on the Upper Winter Creek trail to Mt. Wilson, 1.6 miles RT on the Rim Trail to the vista point, and about .4 miles roundtrip to get from the end of the Mt. Wilson Trail to the start of the Rim Trail. That's assuming the signed mileage is in the ballpark of reality.


  1. Almost there!! Got any plans for the big 1-0-0? I'd love to join you on a hike before you've completed this epic challenge! E-mail me when you get a chance: kolby [at] thehikeguy dot .com.

  2. I'm trying to fit in the Mt. Baldy Trail in here (the one from the ranger station to Mt. Baldy). That would definitely be the biggest altitude gain for a day. But I am not sure if there's enough daylight for me to actually do this one anymore.

  3. If you're doing the Mt. Baldy Trail, are you planning on ending at Manker Flats and hitching a ride to the ranger station? That may save you an hour or so of additional hiking.

  4. No, I was just going to go up and down Bear Canyon. Fewer miles than Mt. Wilson, but about 2,000 more feet of elevation change, I think. That's why I'm thinking I won't be able to finish it this late in the season.